The London Review of Books (“LRB”) published “Too Specific and Too Vague“, a review by the English culinary writer Bee Wilson of two recent books that refer to the ways that Asian cooking encountered English tastes in England in the 20th century. One book is about the work of 7 women presenting immigrant dishes in British and American restaurants and cook books. The other was about the history of the English word curry. The article appears to be accessible, LRB has had a paywall. I am not sure if the paywall is taken off selected articles, or has been removed, or if a bypass plugin is necessary.
The story is complicated and nuanced. English adventurers encountered Indian cooking as early as the 16th century. Manufactured curry powders – blends of ground dry spices -became popular in the 19th century. The English labelled several other spicy dishes encountered in Asia as curry. In the 20th century, immigrants to Britain cooked and sold spicy food. The English liked the food. The English found it simpler to call anything made by immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangla Desh and other parts of Southeast Asia “curry”. English lexicographers concluded that the English decided that anything like anything cooked with manufactured condiment curry powder was curry. As the history of the term involved English colonialism and empire, and the reaction of the English to South Asians immigrants, the lexicographers’ decision was controversial.
Ms. Wilson mentioned Madhur Jaffrey, an Asian immigrant writer:
As a teenager, I started cooking from Madhur Jaffrey’s books and saw with a jolt that, for Indian cooks, hearing British people declaring they loved curry could come across as a crass postcolonial misrepresentation. Jaffrey arrived in London from Delhi in 1955 to study at Rada, and taught herself to cook using her mother’s recipes because she disliked English food (except fish and chips). In England, Indian food was thought to be anything sprinkled with curry powder …
‘To me the word “curry” is as degrading to India’s great cuisine as the term “chop suey” was to China’s,’ Jaffrey wrote in An Invitation to Indian Cooking (1973). ‘“Curry” is just a vague, inaccurate word which the world has picked up from the British, who, in turn, got it mistakenly from us … If “curry” is an oversimplified name for an ancient cuisine, then “curry powder” attempts to oversimplify (and destroy) the cuisine itself.’
For all its flaws, we seem to be stuck with the word because there are many occasions when there is no satisfactory synonym in the English language. Look at what a hash the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] makes of trying to pin it down. Curry, it says, is ‘a preparation of meat, fish, fruit or vegetables, cooked with a quantity of bruised spices and turmeric, and used as a relish or flavouring, esp. for dishes composed of or served with rice. Hence, a curry = a dish or stew (of rice, meat, etc) flavoured with this preparation (or with curry powder).’ This definition is both far too specific and too vague.
Some of the curry deniers have softened their stance. … in the years since Jaffrey’s diatribe against curry in 1973, she has written a series of curry-themed books including Curry Easy, Curry Easy Vegetarian, 100 Essential Curries, 100 Weeknight Curries, Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible and Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation. Presumably, this was partly a way of luring as many readers as possible by seeming to offer something familiar. In Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation she wrote: ‘If Britain once colonised India, India has now returned the favour by watching spellbound as its food completely colonised Britain.’ That book was dedicated to Britain, ‘the Curry Nation that welcomed me all those many years ago’.
Last week I found a recipe in the American writer Anupy Singla’s Indian Slow Cooker for a dish titled “Chickpea Flour Yogurt Curry” which explained that this curry is a kadhi, a northern dish made with dairy and chickpea flour. I used the slow cooker recipe, (that book had options for full size crockpots and 3.5 quart pots), in a 6 quart Instant Pot, in a slow cooker program. I used buttermilk for the dairy, intead of yogurt. See Anupy Singla’s online Instant Pot recipe for a pressure cooker/multicooker method of cooking this dish. Ms. Singla also describes stir fried vegetable – e.g. Aloo Gobi – by the word sabji.